A Message from Our Rabbi
February 12, 2020

“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the base [b’tachtit] of the mountain.” [Exodus 19:16-17]

This week’s parashah, Yitro , recounts the central episode in the Jewish covenantal story as God gives the Torah to Moses and the people at Mt. Sinai. Creatively reading the Torah’s account of this climactic moment, the ancient rabbis offer an unexpected and challenging image. In a midrash recounted in the Talmud, the rabbis play on the fact that the word “tachtit,” translated here as “base” is connected to the Hebrew word meaning “beneath.” The midrash imagines God picking up Mt. Sinai and holding it over the people’s heads - so they literally stand beneath it - and declaring “If you accept My Torah, well and good. If not, there will be your burial.” (B. Shabbat 88a)

This unnerving midrash has disturbed commentators for centuries - in fact even the Talmud immediately lodges an objection against it! - because it appears to portray God threatening the people with death if they reject Torah. Not only does this image fly in the face of a loving and compassionate God, but it also would suggest that choice to accept Torah was coerced, and therefore not binding. In making sense of this counterintuitive midrash, one suggestion I’ve encountered is to read God’s words not as a threat but as a prediction: God holds the mountain over the Israeites’ heads to make that point that if Jews cease to accept Torah, this will lead to their demise as a people, perhaps through ignorance and assimilation. 

This creative re-reading of the midrash reinforces an important point: in our own time we are constantly choosing whether to accept Torah - how much we let the central stories, teachings, and values of our tradition infuse and inform our lives. Torah is a precious gift that has sustained the Jewish people for millennia, but it is in our hands each and every day to ensure that gift is valued in our own generation and passed along to the next one.

This Friday evening , our Kabbalat Shabbat service begins in the Chapel at 6:30 pm.

Shabbat morning , Estherose Heyman will be leading Torah study beginning at 9:00 am. This will be followed by Spice Up Your Judaism at 10:30 am led by Jaimee Friedman.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Waxman